I apologize for my infrequency of postings as of late. My mind has been occupied by the resolution of my summer teaching job and my imminent migration to that ivory tower of the prairie know as the University of Iowa. To keep you satisfied, here is some wisdom by Joseph Campbell, who is a major influence upon my own thought. I wish I had the time to analyze this passage as I so love to do, so try to see in this passage a blend of Dante, Nietzsche and Jung.
”When you move into the level of dream consciousness, all the laws of logic change. There, although you think you are seeing something that is not you, it is actually you that you are seeing, because the dream is simply a manifestation of your own will and energy – you created the dream and yet you are surprised by it. So the duality there is illusory. There, subject and object, though apparently separate, are the same.
“The realms of the Gods and Demons – heaven, purgatory, hell – are of the substance of dream. Myth, in this view, is the dream of the world. If we accept gods as objective realities, then they are the counterpart of your dream – this is a very important point – dream and myth are of the same logic … and since the subject and the object seem to be separate but are not separate in the dream, so the god that seems to be outside you in myth (or religion, if you prefer) is not different from you. You and your god are one … All the heavens and gods are within you and are identical with aspects of your own consciousness on the dream level.”
Joseph Campbell, Myths of Light, p.70
Regardless whether we evaluate technology positively or negatively, the most powerful piece of technology ever invented by the human race was the written word. It relieved us from the burden of experiencing genuine truth by giving us the means to manufacture truth as an object independent of ourselves. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but it can still be double-edged. The following is not a condemnation of writing per se. Rather I use it as a point of departure for an evaluation of technology in general, and a warning that simply because a man owns a tool does not necessarily mean he will put it to good use.
Today’s reading from Plato comes from the Phaedrus (274c-275b), in which Socrates conveys his meaning best by way of a parable. The god Thoth, or Theuth, is the Egyptian equivalent of Hermes (hence their later synthesis as Hermes Trismegistus). In this tale, Theuth visits the pharaoh Thamus bearing the gifts of “number and calculation, draughts and dice, geometry and astronomy, and furthermore, letters (grammata).” He comes as a Prometheus of sorts, bringing fire to mankind, a benefaction charged with mixed blessings. I pick up the passage at this point, translating as literally as possible:
ἐπειδὴ δὲ ἐπὶ τοῖς γράμμασιν ἦν, ‘τοῦτο δέ, ὦ βασιλεῦ, τὸ μάθημα,’ ἔφη ὁ Θεύθ, ‘σοφωτέρους Αἰγυπτίους καὶ μνημονικωτέρους παρέξει: μνήμης τε γὰρ καὶ σοφίας φάρμακον ηὑρέθη.’ ὁ δ᾽ εἶπεν: ‘ὦ τεχνικώτατε Θεύθ, ἄλλος μὲν τεκεῖν δυνατὸς τὰ τέχνης, ἄλλος δὲ κρῖναι τίν᾽ ἔχει μοῖραν βλάβης τε καὶ ὠφελίας τοῖς μέλλουσι χρῆσθαι: καὶ νῦν σύ, πατὴρ ὢν γραμμάτων, δι᾽ εὔνοιαν τοὐναντίον εἶπες ἢ δύναται. τοῦτο γὰρ τῶν μαθόντων λήθην μὲν ἐν ψυχαῖς παρέξει μνήμης ἀμελετησίᾳ, ἅτε διὰ πίστιν γραφῆς ἔξωθεν ὑπ᾽ ἀλλοτρίων τύπων, οὐκ ἔνδοθεν αὐτοὺς ὑφ᾽ αὑτῶν ἀναμιμνῃσκομένους: οὔκουν μνήμης ἀλλὰ ὑπομνήσεως φάρμακον ηὗρες. σοφίας δὲ τοῖς μαθηταῖς δόξαν, οὐκ ἀλήθειαν πορίζεις: πολυήκοοι γάρ σοι γενόμενοι ἄνευ διδαχῆς πολυγνώμονες εἶναι δόξουσιν, ἀγνώμονες ὡς ἐπὶ τὸ πλῆθος ὄντες, καὶ χαλεποὶ συνεῖναι, δοξόσοφοι γεγονότες ἀντὶ σοφῶν.’
And when it came to letters, Theuth said, “this invention, oh king, will make the Egyptians wiser and improve their memory. For I have discovered a stimulant (pharmakon) of both memory and wisdom.” But Thamus replied, “oh most crafty Theuth, one man has the lot of being able to give birth to technologies (ta tekhnēs), but another to assess both the harm and benefit to those who would make use of them. Even you, at present, being the father of letters, through good intentions spoke the opposite of its potential. For this, by the neglect of memory, will produce forgetfulness (lēthēn) in the souls of those who learn it, since through their faith in writing they recollect things externally by means of another’s etchings, and not internally from within themselves. You invented a stimulant not of memory, but of reminder, and you are procuring for its students the reputation (doxan) of wisdom (sophias), not the truth (alētheian) of it. For having heard much, but without learning anything, they will seem to you to be knowledgeable of many things, but for the most part really ignorant, and difficult to associate with, having become wise-seeming (doxosophoi) instead of wise (sophōn).”
The language of this passage demonstrates well the traditional Greek view toward the utility of knowledge, that theoretical knowledge (knowledge for its own sake) should be preferred to applied knowledge (technology). The written word, like all other technologies, is designed to manipulate nature and abstract us from it by having us profess our faith (pistis) in truths written rather than experienced. The written word is an hallucinogenic drug (pharmakon), whose side-effects are forgetfulness (lēthē), which is the opposite of truth (alētheia, lit. a-lēthē, the negation of forgetfulness). The degree to which we translate theoretical knowledge (truth, wisdom) into applied knowledge (technology) is the degree to which we diminish ourselves and magnify the system we created, to the point where the system defines us rather than vice versa. Over the past century this nihilistic ethos has successfully colonized the modern mind:
In the past the man has been first…in the future the system must be first.
-F.W. Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management (1911)
By granting precedence, reliance, and dependence upon the written word as the source of wisdom, external rather than internal, we treat is as a structure metaphysically separate from ourselves. But this structure is not wisdom, which is an eternal sense. Rather it is knowledge, an historical sense, which divides our nature and reality into arbitrary categories of space and time. It divorces us from authentically living a culture, or a philosophy, a way of life, and rather it set us apart from it, as objects of study divorced from subjective experience. Instead of living it, we just talk about it, all the while very little gets done to maintain it as all sense of truth and identity is continually passing away into the chemicals and circuitry of a postmodern, pluralistic, moral wasteland of atoms and void.
By granting precedence to the edifice of the written word, the image of wisdom (doxa sophias), we as a species naturally adapt to our environment and become like to it, becoming pseudo-intellectuals, appearing wise (doxosophoi) rather than being it.
This is why the esoteric mysteries cults existed and writing used to be the preserve of first the religious (hence the hieros, “sacred,” in hieroglyphics) and then intellectual (the original Academy) priesthoods. For the degree to which the technology of writing colonizes down the social strata into the base of the pyramid of Being, is the degree to which each person colonized becomes her own factory of truths and her own religious establishment. The logical conclusion of this is total societal atomization. This result, likely never to be fully reached, will be good or bad depending on the degree to which that society invests in education. The more a person is educated, the more capable and deserving she is of sovereignty in that society. But a society such as the United States, which has on the one hand high literacy but on the other hand an alarmingly disproportionately small investment in education compared to, say, the military, turns this seemingly liberatingly literate people into ones vicious, alienated and ripe for the sickles of technocratic tyranny.
The aegis against this threat is humanism, the doctrine that we must remain in control of the systems we created, and recognize that eternal wisdom and values come from within ourselves and not from the Frankenstein’s monster that has come to dominate our collective consciousness. Let us not be Victor over nature. Let us be nature, and live according to it.
Let us not descend into a cave where all is judged by appearances due to a superficiality in our values, reflecting the shallowness of our thinking in a desperate attempt to see to the bottom of things in order to satisfy our need for truth. For at the bottom of these shallows, of the ever-receding tide of human wisdom, is nothing but mud. This is what the thousand-year odyssey of the human mind has accomplished. We pruned Intellect of all its branches into infinite possibilities and removed all choice but to follow one single road called progress. Our search for truth caused us not to delve deeper into the depths of the infinite, but rather by retreating to the shallows to plant our feet firmly on the bottom. Perhaps it won’t be long before we forget even how to swim.
The myth of the poet, and the argument of the philosopher, are media (logoi) through which Intellect makes manifest a single cosmos. Much as Plato’s ideal political constitution (Politeia) is also a blueprint for the well-constituted soul, this cosmos can be viewed, as a mathematical fractal, as identical at all orders of magnitude, from the astronomic to atomic level. Establishing this pattern of eternal recursion is necessary to achieving a mystical union with the One, of annihilating the apostate ego in an act of total conversion. The word conversion, after all, means a turning-around, in Greek epistrophe. Cephalus in Republic 329d alleges that the cause of most men’s suffering is none other than their own character (tropos). Tropos (related to epistrophe) means literally “orientation,” and thus a conversion, a reorientation of one’s thoughts and of one’s soul is necessary to harmonize it within the macrocosm of which it is a microcosm. To do so, continues Cephalus, one must be “well-ordered” (kosmios) and live “moderately” (metrios). A mathematical proportion must be imposed within that is consistent with the harmony of the heavenly spheres.
Let us now map out this intelligible cosmos by means of a dialogue between two texts, Dante’s Divina Commedia and William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. As scientists have recently discovered the Higgs Boson, the “God Particle,” by the collision of two charged particles, so the convergence of these two seemingly opposing texts will help us discover just what gives mass to our metaphysical framework: the Satan Particle.
Let us start with the enigmatic, proto-romantic Blake.
Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
In this passage Blake inaugurates his program, true to the title of the work, to shatter the illusory boundary between Subject and Object, between Soul and Body, arguing it as an error of perception. The five bodily senses limit us to perceiving just that, the bodies of ourselves and others. He attributes this handicap to the times (“in this age”), as the Enlightenment sought to understand the cosmos as a lifeless, mechanical contraption. Yet in truth, this view is merely the projection onto reality of an intellect desperate to reduce all nature to calculable quantities.
To live according to reason is to subject even oneself to such a calculus, playing the cunning fox rather than the courageous lion. By drawing mathematical boundaries, we teach ourselves never to cross them, imprisoning ourselves within scientific definitions.
But there still remains the status of Reason as “the outward circumference of Energy,” implying that Energy does not only precede Reason, but is also its source. Here I will assume Blake’s knowledge of Greek, that by Reason he means logos (the ordering principle) and by Energy (energeia – pure activity). We may recall Aquinas’ definition of God as actus purus (pure activity), from which proceeds the Holy Spirit via the Son (logos). Yet according to the Gospel of John, logos was not only the first principle but also identical to God (en arkhēi ēn ho Logos…Theos ēn ho Logos). To solve this puzzle we must disregard cause (Energy) as distinct from effect (Reason) in the same way we combine Subject and Object (i.e. Intellect and the One). The One is magnified and good insofar as it has achieved total emanation, with the infinity of all possible infinities realized no longer as potential (dynamis) but as actual (energeia).
Think of the geometrical circle. It is defined not by its center, but by its circumference. In Platonic terms, it receives its essence by its form. Since the 1-dimensional line that forms the circle’s circumference has no start or endpoint, it is simultaneously beginning and end (A and Ω).
The greater glory of God (maior Dei gloria) is realized in His outermost circumference, for it is at that extent that the cosmic order is fully realized. The outermost layer of our sovereign Sun, the aptly named corona (Latin for crown) is much hotter than its superficial photosphere. We cannot appreciate the fullest glory of this God simply by looking at it, but by observing what emanates from it. A microcosm analogous to the solar system, to which the same principle of divine emanation applies, is Democritus’ primordial particle, the atom, whose “outermost circumference,” the outermost energy level of its electron cloud, is the most active in the bonding and construction of molecules, the building-blocks of matter. The power of the atom is appreciated not in its nucleus, but in its emanations. When stars explode in supernova, they act as gods sacrificing themselves to renew the cosmos by forging heavier elements.
The visible sphericity of such solar and atomic macro- and microcosms can be read in the cosmology of Dante’s Divina Commedia. Here we find our Satan particle, the nucleus of the atom that is the perceivable universe. The further Dante ascends from the pit of Hell at the terrestrial center, the closer he comes to God, reaching Aristotle’s primum mobile, the Prime Mover so far beyond the material, elemental cosmos of earth, water, air and fire, that its substance can only be called the quintessence, literally the fifth element.
Dante’s ascent through the celestial spheres away from Earth is the same as an ascent through the energy levels of the electron cloud away from the nucleus, into the outermost circumference of energy that is itself the cosmos-ordering Reason (logos). Satan as the nucleus represents potential energy, while the electrons in the outermost orbit are the most active (energeia). Sin is the void, the gap between potential and actual, and thus Satan is in his rightful place.
When Dante transcends the bounds of the physical cosmos he enters the after-physical, the metaphysical cosmos, beyond space and time, into what is no longer perceivable, but only what is intelligible. Here our perspective undergoes a total inversion, a polar shift. It is now Earth below (matter) that seems the outermost emanation from the sovereign principle of Being itself, that which is beyond, above Being and the source of all Reality.
To cast out Satan, to cast out Desire (quoth Blake: “the history of this is written in Paradise Lost”), is to free the self (by annihilating the self – Satan) from servitude to the material. Human society, under the banners of progress (vexilla regis prodeunt inferni – “on progress the banners of the king of Hell – Inferno XXXIV.1) is increasingly enslaving itself to what is, whereas what could be, that infinite spring of possibilities, is falling out of favor. To quote Boethius (De Consolatione Philosophiae III):
Felix, qui potuit boni
Fontem visere lucidum.
Felix, qui potuit gravis
Terrae solvere vincula.
Happy, who has been able
To behold the shining fountain of the Good.
Happy, who has been able
To break the chains of Earth.
To quote Blake once more, “men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.” Reason as the outward circumference is the furthest projection of our own prophetic spirit onto the cosmos, and the march of science is causing that outward circumference to recede back into its singularity, to collapse upon its own ignorance, to reduce us to the mechanized automata of Newton’s lifeless macrocosm.
Napoleon Bonaparte is perhaps one of the last of history’s imperial apostates. Like Augustus and Julian, Napoleon combined innovation with tradition, rising from a bloody revolution to restore Europe to an imperium true to her legacy, that of Rome. The following is a chapter excerpted from my thesis written on Napoleon’s use of classicism to advance his imperial agenda. The narrative I employ here is illustrated in a series of paintings that map out the rise and fall of this tragic hero of history:
The rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte constitutes a dramatic course of events contained within a few brief decades of history. This essay has suggested how the course of Napoleon’s life had in a sense reenacted the political developments of antiquity. Like the empires of Persia, Athens and Rome itself, Napoleon’s career reached a climax and, as in a Sophoclean tragedy, suffered a catastrophic denouement. Perhaps the most familiar word we derive from Greek drama is hubris, an overstepping of human bounds into competition with the gods themselves. I shall now illustrate the hubris that precipitated Napoleon’s fall from grace through his evolution in artistic representation.
Let us begin with Le général Bonaparte à Arcole 17 novembre 1796 by Antoine-Jean Gros. This typifies the first stage of Napoleon’s career, the ascent to power through the glory of war. The portrait exudes the themes of “the man of action in his natural context, the battlefield,” a Homeric hero such as Achilles leading his Myrmidons into battle with a courageous, severe yet serene expression. The message from this painting was that Napoleon took part in the labors of, and identified with, his fellow soldiers; but his is such an idealized form that he is set above the common man, so naturally he should lead them.
The next painting depicts Napoleon in his transition from a war hero to an autocrat, Jacque-Louis David’s The First Consul Crossing the Alps at the Great Saint Bernard Pass (1801). His long warrior’s hair is shorter than his depiction at Arcole, suggesting that he had matured to the dignity of political office. Still, it is long enough to be caught in the wind and whip across his left cheek. Two salient factors serve to elevate Napoleon above the ranks of common humanity. First is his physical representation in the painting, far on his high horse above the artillerymen in the background. No longer, as at Arcole, does he face his fellow soldiers on an equal plain. Second are the inscriptions carved into the rocks at the bottom: HANNIBAL, KAROLVS MAGNVS, BONAPARTE. The identification with Hannibal was safe enough, for he and Napoleon were both great generals who crossed the Alps, as Napoleon had done in 1800 before his victory at Marengo. But Charlemagne crossed the Alps not only as a man of war; he did so in the year 800 to be crowned “Emperor of the Romans” by Pope Leo III. A thousand years later, Napoleon offered a hint of his aspirations not merely to kingship, but to ecumenical imperium.
Third in the series is another work of David, The Coronation of Napoleon (1807), completed three years after the fact, but true to the events and ideas of 1804. With Pope Pius VII present, brought to mind is the coronation of Charlemagne such as that depicted by Raphael (1483-1520) in the Vatican Museum. Yet if a Napoleon crossing the Alps in 1801 was already equating himself to Charlemagne, by 1804 and certainly by 1807, he has surpassed even the Frankish icon. Unlike the Raphael painting, Napoleon stands elevated above the pontiff passively looking on and making the sign of the cross. Napoleon is already crowned and, as he had already grabbed the crown and set it on his own head, so he confers the honor upon Josephine. The language of Napoleon’s official correspondence of the time corroborates the choreography of the painting:
But the Pope was not addressing with this absurd and imprudent language, as did Gregory VII, the degenerate and degraded children of Charlemagne, but rather his powerful and glorious successor.
By the time this was written in 1810 the Holy Roman Empire had since been abolished (1806) and now Rome and the Papal States were added to the Grand Empire. But Napoleon was no successor to the medieval empire of the Ottos, Henry IV and Francis II, but rather to the ancient empire to which Charlemagne’s honorific “Emperor of the Romans” entitled him. His aim was “a revival of Caesaro-Papism,” to be a new Constantine in a world order where temporal power held sway over ecclesiastical matters. Constantine the Great (r. 306-337 CE) had styled himself “equal of the Apostles,” a degree of sainthood that placed him clear above the Bishop of Rome.
Yet with such an apostolic equation Napoleon entered into dangerous territory, realized in the next painting, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne (1806). The regal imagery and Platonic idealization as independent from space and time are suggestive enough of Napoleon’s superhumanity. Yet the “hubris” of this painting is best appreciated with reference to a later work of Ingres, Jupiter and Thetis (1811). They are conceptually identical. As did the emperor Diocletian in the late third century, Napoleon had identified with Zeus himself.
Napoleon’s apotheosis in works of art, while megalomaniacal on the surface, still corresponded to the classicizing pattern of Napoleon’s political career, to freely choose classical historical precedents. Emperor worship was instituted in parts of the Roman Empire as early as Augustus, assigning to the monarch a sacrosanctity vouchsafed behind the aegis of the civil religion.
But Napoleon had gone too far. His aspirations skyrocketed beyond the limits of power circumscribed by reason and realism, to the point where the reflection upon his image caught up with, and overtook, his real-life achievements. He hubristically overstepped his bounds into “the realm of the fantastic or of unlimited possibilities.” Works of art such as that of Ingres ascribed divinity to a person who had not yet subdued, if not subjugated, the whole of Europe. Napoleon quite literally rested upon the laurels of his Roman imperial crown before his France had truly equaled the ecumenical supremacy that those classical symbols of power entailed.
1812. Drunk with imperium over the armies of Europe, hell-bent on scourging Russia back into the Continental System to overthrow Carthage, Napoleon crossed his own hubristic threshold, the same Niemen River that formed the boundary between his own Roman Empire and the Byzantine successor state to the east. Confident that the mere display of his shear power would bully the Eastern Caesar into compliance, Emperor Napoleon tragically miscalculated. A new Julian the Apostate marched to his fate in the steppes of the new Persia. The disastrous Russian campaign reenergized Europe against Napoleon. He lost the battle of Leipzig in 1813. The next year Prussian troops stood on Montmartre. The Emperor abdicated and was exiled to Elba. Nemesis had struck back.
Upon his return to France in 1815, Napoleon’s phoenix flew only 100 days, and after Waterloo he saw the reality of what he had become. Like his old self, he fashioned to himself a new classical role; he styled himself a new Themistocles, abandoned by his people, come to the court of his enemy. But unlike his Athenian predecessor, the British would grant him no lordly estate on their side of the Channel. He boarded a ship to the remote island of St. Helena, where he passed away in 1821. A modern Prometheus had fallen from the heights of Olympus, chained to a barren rock.
The raison d’être of a liberal education is neither to inculcate values nor destroy them. It is to supply a person with the tools to create or adopt his or her own values, which can only be achieved through the exercise of free thought. That is what the liberal in liberal education means, after all, from the Latin liberalis, “of or pertaining to a free person.” That freedom of the intellect is achieved by escaping the prison of black-and-white thinking, by shattering the shackles of the illusory division between not only Good and Evil, but even between Subject and Object. Plato famously illustrated this process with his Cave analogy (Republic Book VII), but I have developed my own theory that boxes humanity into three educational categories: (1) those of the Father, (2) those of the Son, and (3) those of the Spirit.
I call it the Theory of the Three Phases, and base it on The Theory of the Three Ages championed by the twelfth-century mystical theologian Gioacchino da Fiore (Joachim of Flora), which argues that there are three phases of history that correspond to the persons of the Holy Trinity:
1. The Age of the Father: the age of the Jewish Law, epitomized by the reception of decalogue (the Ten Commandments) from God to Moses on Mount Sinai.
2. The Age of the Son: the age of the Gospels, epitomized by the descent of Christ into the world of Man and the evangelization of his message.
3. The Age of the Spirit: the age of return to unity with God and of total freedom, epitomized by the rule of the Order of the Just.
Joachim employed the Trinity in an historical analysis on a macrocosmic scale, yet it is the same macrocosmic perspective that comes out of a superficial reading of Plato’s Republic (or more accurately Politeia, “political constitution”) as a program for large-scale political revolution. On a deeper level, Plato’s City-in-Speech is an allegory for the microcosm of the human soul. In like manner I will employ Joachim’s analysis on a microcosmic scale to divide up the history of a single human life into the same Trinitarian epochs.
1. The Phase of the Father: beginning at birth, when we receive our initial impressions and constructions of reality, in which our sense impressions are interpreted in terms of the truths handed down to us by our parents, our priests and all other authority figures. As suggest by the term, it roughly parallels the time in life when one is subjected, both physically and intellectually, to one’s father (or patristic analogue). First Phasers do not question the validity of these truths, understanding them superficially. They take them for granted, having had no meaningful exposure to other world-views, and if they do, they dismiss them, sometimes inimically, as aberrations from, or deliberate threats to, their own dogmas.
The First Phase is dualistic when it comes to metaphysics and eschatology, as it tends to take literally the concepts of Heaven and Hell, for instance, understanding them only in a temporal and spatial sense. Good and Evil are perceived as two (in effect) physical forces governing human behavior, while God and Satan are anthropomorphic deities in constant battle over the our souls (the concept of soul also understood in a spatio-temporal sense).
2. The Phase of the Son: a time of disillusion, rebellion and tribulation. It is the time when one detaches his or herself from authority figures in quest of a new identity. The Second Phase, however, is not defined by identity, but by the lack thereof. In fact, it is gradual dissolution of all values, truths and connections to one’s native context and past. It is called the Phase of the Son as it parallels the separation of Christ from God the Father via the Incarnation. In Neoplatonic terms, it is the descent of the soul from the realm of Being into the realm of Becoming, into the embrace (i.e. receptacle, ὑποδόχη) of matter.
If the First Phase is Religion, the Second Phase is Science, a cosmology of atomism and the necessity of void. Arithmetically it is 2, the principle denominator and divisor. This is the phase of the Ego rebelling from the Superego and joining the Devil’s party (the Id). Writes William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
The history of this is written in Paradise Lost, & the Governor or Reason is call’d Messiah.
And the original Archangel or possessor of the command of the heavenly host, is call’d the Devil or Satan.
According to the First Phase, the transition into the Second Phase is analogous to the Fall of Lucifer from God’s grace. In other words, they assert the primacy of the personal Deity as the Creator of all things and was intelligently designed in a top-down (trickle-down?) construction. The Second Phase, however, would more willingly agree with Blake’s interpretation of Milton, explaining reality in terms of evolutionary theory and scientific physics, that Reason (God) cast out Desire (Satan) unjustly, in repudiation of Man’s bestial origins.
A key difference to note here is what highlights the humanism of my theory in contrast to the fatalism of Joachim’s historiography, the fact that not everyone reaches the Third Phase (in fact most do not even experience the Second). Increasingly more people are finding themselves stuck in the Second Phase, relentlessly clinging to their Satanic Ego, their glorious flesh, their chemicals of atoms and void. They may very well find themselves, despite their place in a populous and pluralistic society, in despondent solitude.
Oedipus, in killing his father, symbolically exited the First Phase. By marrying his mother (the word matter and mother are cognates) he entered the Second Phase. So what happens next?
3. The Phase of the Spirit: The rebellion of the Ego redounds upon itself, bringing about its total destruction, dismembered by a band of maenads and crucified under Pontius Pilate. It suffers, dies, and is buried. In the Third Phase it rises again, in accordance with the scriptures of myth. Oedipus gouges out his eyes, the organs of sight into the world of Becoming, in order to gain true sight, insight, into the world of Being.
The Third Phase, naturally, completes the Trinity. It is a return to Father by way of the Son (as Joseph Campbell notes, the word atonement is really at-one-ment). It is Hegel’s synthesis as the dialectical product of thesis and antithesis. It is the numerical 1 and 2 combined into a unity-in-plurality.
If the First is Religion, and the Second is Science, the Third Phase is Philosophy.
The Third Phase, as an all-encompassing Trinity, embraces religion as understood allegorically and in a true understanding of metaphysics as the cosmological identity of reality and intellect, and it appreciates the value of ritual in its power to help society cohere. It also embraces Science, as the proper methodology for understand reality in material terms. It views the two seemingly rival epistemologies as in harmony and as, like itself, contestants racing toward the same goal: Truth, Beauty, Meaning. This is why the Neoplatonists had no bad conscience in reconciling Plato, Aristotle, and the Olympian pantheon.
Plato would call those of the Third Phase the true philosophers, and the ideal society one over which these philosophers are kings, Joachim’s Order of the Just. Francis Bacon, who in his New Atlantis constructed a similar utopia, famously said that “a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion (from his essay On Atheism).” The Three Phases is the process by which the mind, the human soul, is brought about to its origin.
This analysis of human education explains comprehensively the political woes of the modern day, particularly in the United States, where power is in the hands (i.e. votes) of a people stuck in the First and Second phase. The former stand stubbornly and puritanically (and often hypocritically) for a something they narrowly understand; the latter stand for nothing, letting the absence of value create a vacuum to be filled by license, hedonism and the anarchy of a swirling vortex of atoms in a probabilistic void.
There is a middle path to be navigated between, a harmony of these opposites, a golden mean, an ordering principle, a logos. That logos, that mediator between the realm of Being and that of Becoming, is the true nature of man, half-angel, half-devil, an embodiment of a dialectical Trinity whose tension is the wellspring of creativity, of art, and of beauty. That logos is the paideia, the education of Hellenism.
The life of the tyrannical soul, from the perspective of such a soul, seems one to be envied. But the Greek word tyrannos means “unconstitutional ruler.” Yet the material conditions of such a government, that is, the degree of power that person holds, is of little relevance compared to the lack of a “constitution” in his soul. A façade of autocracy is a thin veil before the anarchy within.
Cicero recounts the tale of the Sword of Damocles (Tusculan Disputations V.21), of the paranoia of a tyrant who, though in full access to material wealth and the gratification of pleasures, cannot pay mind to these so long as a blade is suspended above him, hanging by a slender thread. In a literal sense of the tale, this may be a fear of assassination, but more abstractly the loss of these material symbols of power, fear that the illusion of certainty invested in these objects will be carried away in the flux of time and the chaos of space that are characteristic of the sensible cosmos.
Damoclean anxiety is endemic in tyrannical souls. The anarchy within gives rise to the true tyrant, the anxiety that limits his horizon of possibilities to the acquisition of whatever material means that can make the anxiety go away, a fruitless quest for ephemeral reassurances of a power he does not truly possess. Worse yet, it becomes a positive feedback loop that drags the tyrannical soul deeper into the depths of Tartarus, of Hell, or however you wish it called. For acquisitive behavior causes an atrophy of abstract thinking. The tyrant is not a student of geometry. Though he may be skilled at math (and the more “successful” tyrants are), he is merely a utilitarian calculator. Everything is a means to an end – “This world is the Will to Power, and nothing else!”
This double whammy of acquisitive behavior and the distraction of Damoclean paranoia prevents even the penitent tyrant from abstract thought, from appreciating the beauty of ideas, of values, of divinity, and on a basic level, of rational and geometrical proportion (what the Greeks called logos).
It is said that the words “Let No One Ignorant of Geometry Enter” (μήδεις ἀγεωμετρήτος εἰσίτω) were inscribed above the door to the Academy at Athens. Tyrants cannot properly study philosophy. Not even Plato himself could cure Dionysius II of Syracuse of the tyrannical disease and manifest the paradox of the “philosopher-king”. Philosophy is a lifestyle that imposes a “constitution” (the Greek word being politeia, the original title of Plato’s Republic) upon oneself. A tyrannical soul may read the pages of Plato, of Plotinus, of Augustine, but his inability to think abstractly renders these pages useless, just an assortment of words that represent a dimension cut off from the tyrant’s world.
A tyrannical soul, at least in effect, denies that the soul even exists. Even if he entertains the notion of a Creator, he is godless. For he lives a delusion of being himself a god, one who can manufacture meaning and values out of the chaos he arrogantly thinks he can turn into order. Power to him is essentially creation, the means of production, sexual, industrial, capitalistic.
We live in an age of anxiety, in a Republic so often maligned as a tyrannical superpower. But perhaps it is its population of tyrannical souls, devotees of the cult of individualism, materialism, and the fleeting tangibility of power, that underlies this increasingly short-sighted behemoth ever falling further from grace.
The driving force of my academic life is the dialectical tension between political and metaphysical antitheses. “Apostasy and Imperium” is a phrase that implies absolute freedom within an eternal cosmic structure. In political terms (something I will flesh out in a later post) this is the imperium envisioned by the Emperor Julian (and Dante later), a society that is both open yet theocratic.
Yet like any good philosophical exercise, the theory should precede the application, the idea preceding the material. I will attempt to resolve the epistemological opposition between Neoplatonism and modern science. The short answer is that not only the contradiction, but also the order of precedence as regards the relation of idea to material, are illusions of language. Grammar divides the totality into subject and object, mind and matter, chicken and egg. The subject stares into an abyss that stares back at him, for it is his own reflection.
A longer answer requires an example derived from both camps, so that, like one fine Christmas morning in 1914, the two can set aside their differences instead of shelling each other into oblivion. In one corner, the philosopher Parmenides (whose influence on Plato qualifies him as a prophet of Neoplatonism). In the other corner, is String Theory (specifically M-Theory), which is arguably the culmination of all mathematical and scientific speculation up to this point.
Parmenides is best known for his assertion that the true nature of reality is undivided, eternal, and static. He confided in a perfect correspondence between reason (logos) and nature. If anything in the material, sensible world did not correspond, that was an error of perception, since reason is inherently perfect. His reliance on logos means a faith in logic, thus the concept of void, a positive nothingness that permits the movement of matter, is fallacious. Without movement, there can be no change. Time is another illusion of perspective. We are contained within it and cannot step outside it. If we could, we would see past, present and future all at once and as a uniform eternity. Trapped in the realm of time we see this eternity in apparent motion. Perhaps the most famous statement from Plato’s Timaeus (37D) is that time is a “moving image of eternity” (εἰκὼ κινητὸς αἰῶνος), literally “a kinetic icon of always-being.”
Then there is M-Theory (see video below), which hypothesizes that the fundamental building-blocks of reality (space-time and subatomic particles) are infinitesimally small one-dimensional strings that vibrate in several dimensions. This accounts for the quantum phenomenon of particles popping in and out of existence. Our definition of existence needs an overhaul.
What makes this theory problematic is also what makes it so alluring. It cannot be tested. Science substantiates theories by manipulating independent variables in order to reproduce a natural phenomenon. We don’t have the instruments to transcend our four spatial-temporal dimensions to get an objective view of reality. Therefore science operates as if this possibility of higher dimensions were nonexistent, since it’s existence would be inconsistent with the cosmological system built up by its confinement in the Plato’s Cave of the world of sense perception. In fact, the very act of perception collapses the infinity of our own probabilities (the fifth dimension) into a single timeline (the fourth dimension). Perhaps the dictum of the eighteenth-century philosopher George Berkeley, “to be is to be perceived” (esse est percipi) has new meaning.
M-Theory posits ten dimensions. This is an important number in Pythagorean mathematics (Pythagoras, like Parmenides, was another saint to the Neoplatonists) as the tetractys is composed of ten points, the four rows of which add up to ten (1+2+3+4=10). Theon of Smyrna (quoted in Cornford, From Religion to Philosophy, Princeton University Press 1991) states that the tetractys “is of great importance in music, because all the consonances are to be found contained in it…it is held to contain the nature of the universe.”
Think of this tetractys as being that single point in the tenth dimension. In its triangular configuration its three sides comprise a Trinity of three in one, the triangle itself consisting of nine triangles, three times three, a trinity of trinities. This divine point is the singularity of singularities, containing within itself an infinity of possible infinities, all possible universes, all possible timelines within those universes. All is a revelation of this single principle.
By identifying this singularity with the One of the Neoplatonists (and as they claim, of Parmenides) we answer the question of cosmic necessity, when we ask ourselves, “why do we exist? Why is reality necessary?” As a student of Neoplatonism for a few years now I used to ask a similar question with regard to the One: why, if the One is infinitely Good, do inferior degrees of reality emanate from it? These emanations are a result of the One thinking itself, thereby creating a grammatical and thus illusory division of the One into subject (Intellect) and object (the One). But why does the One have to think itself?
To answer this we must admit the equation of perfection and eternity, that the cosmos as a succession of concentric spheres is ultimately circular. When we transcend the fourth dimension we behold time as a line, the points along which represent separate points in time, and its two terminal points (if we divide it into meaningful segments) representing beginning (alpha) and end (omega). The circle, however, has no beginning- or endpoints. It is the alpha and the omega simultaneously (Revelation 22:13).
Time (represented by the line segment) is the gulf between potential (what is) and actual (what ought). We contain within ourselves the potential to fulfill an infinity of possible futures, and as we experience them we reduce these possibilities to one. THE One, on the other hand, not only contains an infinity of all possible infinities, all those possible infinities are actualized simultaneously. It is Perfect Being in that it is, as Thomas Aquinas argues, pure actuality (actus purus). It is infinitely Good because (in reference to Anselm’s ontological argument – Proslogion II) anything that exists in both mind and reality is necessarily superior to that which exists only in mind. In Neoplatonism, Mind (νοῦς) and Reality are the same thing. The Mind of God contains infinite infinities in total actuality.
Those such as Plato and Plotinus assert that an ideal world, eternal and timeless, precedes this imperfect world, while others, such as Marx and Darwin, assert that everything evolved from simpler things to the point when we humans developed self-awareness, creating this illusion of eternal reality via mind, that we created God in our own image and not the other way around. The image of God is that of Eternity. We suffer because our perspective is limited to seeing this Eternity in motion, “a kinetic icon of always-being.”